Rage in the cage reaches a bigger stage

Under its new management, World Extreme Cagefighting may be all grown up.

In the past six months, the mixed-martial arts league has signed deals with the Hard Rock Hotel and cable sports channel Versus. It’s looking forward to someday becoming more than Ultimate Fighting Championship’s younger sibling.

Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta’s Zuffa LLC, which owns UFC, bought WEC last November, along with two other smaller, mixed-martial-arts leagues.

The 6-year-old fighting league was alive but on a much smaller scale, said Peter Dropick, WEC’s vice president of event operations and production. WEC sold out all of its events but the bouts were hosted in smaller, more-obscure venues, Dropick said the day before a May 12 event at the Hard Rock. WEC now has a deal to hold its events at The Joint inside the Hard Rock.

The fighting circuit also made it onto the small screen under its previous ownership through a contract with HDNet. Though the deal was a triumph for the small organization, it didn’t allow growth, Dropick said. High-definition-video limitations and the channel’s narrow availability were a stark contrast to the 77 million households receiving Versus, he said.

Dropick said ESPN doesn’t lead Versus by much, with 90 million homes wired. Versus has aligned itself with well-known sports bodies that used to be on ESPN, such as the National Hockey League, he added.

WEC will debut live on Versus today, one of three, two-hour, live shows Versus will broadcast under the contract. A half-dozen, one-hour, taped shows also will air, Dropick said. Overall, WEC will do eight or nine events this year and Dropick forecasts 10 to 12 next year. Although pay-per-view events — a UFC cash cow — are not on the immediate horizon for the WEC, Dropick does not rule them out someday.

The TV deal netted better sponsors, Dropick said, referring to Las Vegas-based nutritional-supplement and beverage manufacturer Xyience, and athletic apparel company Tapout. WEC is in talks with movie studios, beer, spirits and auto companies, he adds, although he couldn’t disclose details.

WEC has benefited largely because of UFC’s staff and resources. It also has some of the same sponsors. But it’s not a duplication, Dropick said.

UFC offers heavyweight and light heavyweight classes full of household names, but it has no bantam or featherweight classes. This offered WEC its niche, Dropick said, although the two leagues have overlapping weight classes and some mistakenly think of WEC as an “unofficial feeder league.”

“Some of these guys could fight in the UFC today,” he said. “(But) this is not a feeder league, not a farm system. We will grow this thing to compete with the UFC someday.”

Jason Probst, a journalist who has covered the UFC, WEC and boxing for sites such as www.maxboxing.com, said the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s acumen has made the WEC organization more legitimate. Although boxing “is in the worst slump I’ve ever seen,” Probst said he sees nothing but good things in the future of these combative sports.

It’s the “X” factor of mixed martial arts that draws so much attention, Probst said. One minute a fighter can be dominating a fight, the next he can be knocked out. The three-round bouts are unpredictable, he said, unlike boxers “poking paws at each other for 10 or 12 rounds.”

The lack of heavyweights works both for and against WEC, Probst said. The big guys “are like the meat to throw at audiences” but WEC showcases talent that might otherwise go unseen.

“Heavyweights are fun … but these guys never run out of gas,” he said.

For Probst, the bottom line is that these fighters get paid; the WEC fighters make more under the UFC’s umbrella. The compensation and sponsorship will also allow the fighters to train full time, which he said will make the sport safer.

Dropick said the fighting organization is tailoring its events to a younger, edgier demographic the Hard Rock tends to attract. Bikini-clad ring girls, live disc jockeys spinning rap and rock music between fights, and high-definition simulcast of the fight on several screens within the venue will work to intensify the 1,000-seat theater’s ambience.

Probst said that, in a period when many mixed-martial-arts leagues have sprung up hoping to cash in on the craze, many did not survive. WEC was among the fittest and will continue to be, especially with its new management, he predicted.

In addition to WEC, the Fertittas’ Zuffa bought out the World Fighting Alliance (WFA) and Pride Fighting Championships, Dropick said.

Pride still operates in Japan, but the company chose to dissolve the WFA.

Ben Stephens writes for the Review-Journal’s sister publication the Las Vegas Business Press and can be contacted at bstephens@lvbusinesspress.com or at 871-6780, extension 316.

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